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Fat Guy

The argument in favor of crop subsidies

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It seems that everything I read about agricultural policy is oriented toward bashing crop subsidies. So, what is the argument in favor of crop subsidies? Are they completely irrational, or is there a good reason for them?


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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not with who, but with the purchasing power of a certain quantity of production of a farm in a certain time frame.

Example: Farmers sells 1,000 bushels of wheat and with the procedes he can buy a car, or a tv, or a sous vide supreme or whatever.

In another year sale of the same quantity would allow hime to buy the same thing.

If the price he obtains drops, the government makes up the difference, thus providing him with parity in purchasing power.

As a student of 20th century US history could tell you this concept started after WWI when farm prices took a dive. it continued under the New Deal.

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Yes, the farm subsidies started to ensure the safety of the American food crop, minimize the risks to Americans that farmers would leave their land during hard economic times. Unfortunately, most of our subsidies are now going to large factory farms to produce things like corn that end up in ethanol, HFCS sweetened products, and processed foods. These factory farms require huge amounts of energy, water, and pesticides/fertilizers to grow their crops. These practices are not sustainable and will lead to loss of biodiversity, depletion of water supplies, etc.

Company's like Tyson are really getting the subsidies by getting ridiculouly cheap corn to feed livestock on their factory farms. The price of factory farmed meat and the resulting products are subsidized by the US taxpayer. Some may argue that this is a good thing, we are getting food cheap. Not only meat, but lots of things sweetened with HFCS. However, obesity, diabetes and other health problems are significantly on the rise. These health costs and loss of productivity is also being absorbed by the US taxpayer.

In order to guarentee the long term sustainability of our food supply, arguments could be made for keeping subsidies that promote making changes to the current practices. Here are some ideas discussed in a recent paper I wrote:

• Subsidies should be decoupled from production so that farmers are not rewarded from planting more corn to compensate for lower prices.

• Subsidies should focus on crops of high quality value such as vegetables, fruits, and nuts. The current subsidies should be phased out over time in favor of subsidizing farmers that will promote the supply of products that will improve the state of health in the US.

• Development of a system that provides various incentives based on the degree that a farm promotes the long term sustainability of US agriculture. Some suggestions include: (1) ranking farms based on their size to incentivize small farms and penalize monoculture farms, (2) going organic, (3) reducing the use of agrochemicals, antibiotics, and genetically modified seeds, (4) adopting practices that stop the degradation of prime farmland(5) awards for farms that are truly innovative and advance sustainable farming practices, (6) successfully reduce water and energy usage, (7) reward farms that sell locally and penalize farms that require extensive transportation to get products to market, (8) provide incentives to promote environmental stewardship, and (9) promote sustainable beef and poultry farming.

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Sounds like a Hobson's choice...potentially destablized food supply vs. meddling with the free market and having rounds of compensatory changes that end up making the program less efficient. Really a philosophical question at its core.

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Let me preface this by saying that I am a farmer but also, by and large, I am against most farm subsidies (and wouldn't take one if presented on a silver platter). Certainly the current system is a criminal mess and quagmire of pork-barrel spending BUT the core idea behind some government farm subsidies is sound.

It's (theoretically) all about National Security. It is in our nations best interest to keep farms running and making food so that we are not at the mercy of foreign interests. He who controls the food controls the populace.


Edited by xxchef (log)

The Big Cheese

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It's (theoretically) all about National Security. It is in our nations best interest to keep farms running and making food so that we are not at the mercy of foreign interests.

As a farmer, do you know what crops currently are eligible for subsidies? I hear of them for corn and cotton, but neither of those really count as food. No one eats field corn, except in derivative products. And these crops are produced in quantities larger than we need so they get exported at the subsidized prices, which destabilizes farmers in other countries.

But for our own national food interests, are there food-related subsidies for things like broccoli, carrots, potatoes, oranges, etc?

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It's (theoretically) all about National Security. It is in our nations best interest to keep farms running and making food so that we are not at the mercy of foreign interests.

As a farmer, do you know what crops currently are eligible for subsidies? I hear of them for corn and cotton, but neither of those really count as food. No one eats field corn, except in derivative products. And these crops are produced in quantities larger than we need so they get exported at the subsidized prices, which destabilizes farmers in other countries.

But for our own national food interests, are there food-related subsidies for things like broccoli, carrots, potatoes, oranges, etc?

That's the argument I made (quoted above) in a recent paper I wrote for my master's program. The subsidies are harming US farmland by depleting ground water supplies, adding chemicals, etc. We need to protect our farmland for long term national security, a reason to stop subsidizing big corn and soybean producers. From a policy standpoint, the agricultural lobbies are probably too strong to stop subsidizies (George Bush couldn't even do it). If we can't get rid of subsidies, they should be diverted to promote innovative farming practices that really do protect our long term national security as well as begin to reverse the health consequences (and costs) associated with the current subsidy program.

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It's (theoretically) all about National Security. It is in our nations best interest to keep farms running and making food so that we are not at the mercy of foreign interests.

As a farmer, do you know what crops currently are eligible for subsidies? I hear of them for corn and cotton, but neither of those really count as food. No one eats field corn, except in derivative products. And these crops are produced in quantities larger than we need so they get exported at the subsidized prices, which destabilizes farmers in other countries.

But for our own national food interests, are there food-related subsidies for things like broccoli, carrots, potatoes, oranges, etc?

Beats the heck out of me. I'm sure one could find this info on FDA/USDA or other govt web sites but, like I said, I'm not personally involved in any of these programs. All I know is that historically they were originally intended to protect us from undo foreign influence/economic pressure related to key commodity items and/or to ensure their continued availability to us at prices deemed acceptable to the market. That original intent has been corrupted into a penalty/reward, vote-buying, social engineering system with little resemblance to it's roots.

It's not just food and feed crops that are subsidized either. Mohair (hair of the angora goat)is a classic example. First subsidized in the 1954 Farm Bill in order to ensure sufficient supply to be able to manufacture US soldier uniforms for future wars (following World War II). This wool was discontinued as a "strategic material" in 1960 but it is STILL being subsidized today.


The Big Cheese

BlackMesaRanch.com

My Blog: "The Kitchen Chronicles"

BMR on FaceBook

"The Flavor of the White Mountains"

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Here is an article with interesting statistics: http://www.grist.org/article/2010-03-25-corn-ethanol-meat-hfcs

To me, one of the most important points is how most of the prime farmland is now being used to grow corn and soybeans because that is what gets the most subsidies. This valuable land is being degraded rather than protected for high quality crops. As of 2009, look how little high quality crops are being produced in the US compared to subsidized crops, many of which are not being used for food.

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To me, one of the most important points is how most of the prime farmland is now being used to grow corn and soybeans because that is what gets the most subsidies. This valuable land is being degraded rather than protected for high quality crops.

Good point, but at least it's better than a housing tract!


The Big Cheese

BlackMesaRanch.com

My Blog: "The Kitchen Chronicles"

BMR on FaceBook

"The Flavor of the White Mountains"

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These factory farms require huge amounts of energy, water, and pesticides/fertilizers to grow their crops.

Generalizations are a dangerous thing...

I grew up on a family farm in Indiana and my father still grows corn and soybeans on about 900 acres of land which is actually quite a bit larger than average for the state (~250 acres), which I suppose you would consider a factory farm as I believe you are using it as synonym for grain monoculture.

Let's start with the easiest assumption to shatter: water usage. Very little makes me as angry than some statistic thrown out about how much water an acre of corn needs. It is NOT relevant. What is relevant and what most people are concerned with is the amount of water used for irrigation. You see, in many parts of the country it rains regularly and farmers do not irrigate their crops. In Indiana, the only people who irrigate are the seed corn companies which means that there is no wholesale depletion of ground water.

Now onto the hardest one, pesticides/fertilizers. Most grain farmers use pesticides and fertilizers as a matter of course - my father certainly does, but there are organic farmers who farm large amounts of land without using artificial pesticides and fertilizers. It certainly can be done - there is nothing about grain monoculture that would prevents farmers from doing so.

I have no statistics on energy usage to back up a claim either way, but I am curious why you think that a large field planted all at once would require more energy than a small scale operation. There are efficiencies to planting and harvesting on a large scale. If anyone has any insight into this, I would be eager to know.

All this is based on my experience in one state (#5 corn producer and #4 soybean producer in US), but I am well aware that commodity crops grown in plains states tend to have different effects - much larger farm size (thousands of acres) and much higher ground water usage. My point is simply that not all commodity farms are the same and many of the things that they are attacked about do not apply to many of them.

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These factory farms require huge amounts of energy, water, and pesticides/fertilizers to grow their crops.

Generalizations are a dangerous thing...

I grew up on a family farm in Indiana and my father still grows corn and soybeans on about 900 acres of land which is actually quite a bit larger than average for the state (~250 acres), which I suppose you would consider a factory farm as I believe you are using it as synonym for grain monoculture.

Let's start with the easiest assumption to shatter: water usage. Very little makes me as angry than some statistic thrown out about how much water an acre of corn needs. It is NOT relevant. What is relevant and what most people are concerned with is the amount of water used for irrigation. You see, in many parts of the country it rains regularly and farmers do not irrigate their crops. In Indiana, the only people who irrigate are the seed corn companies which means that there is no wholesale depletion of ground water.

Now onto the hardest one, pesticides/fertilizers. Most grain farmers use pesticides and fertilizers as a matter of course - my father certainly does, but there are organic farmers who farm large amounts of land without using artificial pesticides and fertilizers. It certainly can be done - there is nothing about grain monoculture that would prevents farmers from doing so.

I have no statistics on energy usage to back up a claim either way, but I am curious why you think that a large field planted all at once would require more energy than a small scale operation. There are efficiencies to planting and harvesting on a large scale. If anyone has any insight into this, I would be eager to know.

All this is based on my experience in one state (#5 corn producer and #4 soybean producer in US), but I am well aware that commodity crops grown in plains states tend to have different effects - much larger farm size (thousands of acres) and much higher ground water usage. My point is simply that not all commodity farms are the same and many of the things that they are attacked about do not apply to many of them.

I don't want to be too technical or disparage farmers. but most of the subsidies in the US go to large monoculture farmers that are energy and water intensive. With respect to water, I have worked as a hydrogeologist for the last 25 years. Hence, a lot of my current research (now that I decided to go back to school again for some crazy reason) relates to sustainability of natural resources and lots of time focused on water supply issues. The use of genetically modified corn, which pretty much all of the factory farms use, does require large amounts of water. The Ogallala Aquifer, a large water supply that underlies eight states from Texas to South Dakota, supplies about 30% of the water used for irrigation to these farms. There is much data to show that water levels are being depleted by growing massive amounts of subsidized corn, most of which is not even being used as food. There is similar data on energy and chemical use. There are very few large farms that are organic, or that don't rely on GMO seed from Monsanto.

Older food corn varities did not yield as much, but the large diversity of corn types could grow with less water, energy and chemicals. This is OK if we are just growing it for food. Now most of the corn can not even be used as food for humans with processing. We are using it to produce cheap animal feed and ethanol. Getting back to the topic of this thread, my argument would be to focus subsidies towards farmers to promote innovative techniques that promote the long term sustainability of food in the US. How can we maximize yields with the least use of water, chemicals, and energy AND grow high quality real food. In my opinion, if we are going to subsidize, let's use the subsidies to change US agricultural practices for the long term sustainability of our food supply.

I remember early in my career getting sent to Puerto Rico to work on a ground water contamination case at a pharmaceutical company. Some of these plants had moved out of the states to avoid recent ground water regulations. As we were putting in wells on top of a hill chasing the "plume" for several months, we could all see where the pollution was going - down hill to all of the pineapple fields owned by a big multinational company. This was a really contaminated site and I did not eat pineapple for a long time after that. I think we need to grow a lot more of our high quality food in the US and protect our highest value farmland by not depleting the aquifer and using lots of chemicals. It's not going to be nearly as valuable in the future if we keep going with the subsidies as they stand today.

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I don't want to be too technical or disparage farmers. but most of the subsidies in the US go to large monoculture farmers that are energy and water intensive. With respect to water, I have worked as a hydrogeologist for the last 25 years. Hence, a lot of my current research (now that I decided to go back to school again for some crazy reason) relates to sustainability of natural resources and lots of time focused on water supply issues. The use of genetically modified corn, which pretty much all of the factory farms use, does require large amounts of water. The Ogallala Aquifer, a large water supply that underlies eight states from Texas to South Dakota, supplies about 30% of the water used for irrigation to these farms. There is much data to show that water levels are being depleted by growing massive amounts of subsidized corn, most of which is not even being used as food. There is similar data on energy and chemical use. There are very few large farms that are organic, or that don't rely on GMO seed from Monsanto.

Well, sure, that was my point. Irrigation and groundwater depletion are serious issues in the plains states but not in other parts of the country. Unless you are saying that non-irrigated crops also deplete groundwater... It's also a bit disingenuous to say most corn is not being used as food. Only 25-30% is being used for ethanol and feed for animals is still food (indirectly). It's true that organic grain farms are a small percentage of overall acreage, but they do exist. Where else is Horizon getting the feed for their gigantic organic dairy operations?

I'm not here to defend grain (or any other crop) subsidies - I think that they should all be abolished. It's just that if you are trying to convince people and your talking points are littered with over generalizations and half truths, you are not likely to be taken seriously.

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I don't want to be too technical or disparage farmers. but most of the subsidies in the US go to large monoculture farmers that are energy and water intensive. With respect to water, I have worked as a hydrogeologist for the last 25 years. Hence, a lot of my current research (now that I decided to go back to school again for some crazy reason) relates to sustainability of natural resources and lots of time focused on water supply issues. The use of genetically modified corn, which pretty much all of the factory farms use, does require large amounts of water. The Ogallala Aquifer, a large water supply that underlies eight states from Texas to South Dakota, supplies about 30% of the water used for irrigation to these farms. There is much data to show that water levels are being depleted by growing massive amounts of subsidized corn, most of which is not even being used as food. There is similar data on energy and chemical use. There are very few large farms that are organic, or that don't rely on GMO seed from Monsanto.

Well, sure, that was my point. Irrigation and groundwater depletion are serious issues in the plains states but not in other parts of the country. Unless you are saying that non-irrigated crops also deplete groundwater... It's also a bit disingenuous to say most corn is not being used as food. Only 25-30% is being used for ethanol and feed for animals is still food (indirectly). It's true that organic grain farms are a small percentage of overall acreage, but they do exist. Where else is Horizon getting the feed for their gigantic organic dairy operations?

I'm not here to defend grain (or any other crop) subsidies - I think that they should all be abolished. It's just that if you are trying to convince people and your talking points are littered with over generalizations and half truths, you are not likely to be taken seriously.

We'll have to respectfully disagree on this issue. this is a very complex,mulit-issue discussion that is outside the realm of this forum. I could provide statistics that ground water depletion is an issue in many areas of the country, not just the plain states, and not even just the US for that matter. There is a big concern that water is going to be the new oil in terms of scarcity, both in terms of depletion and degradation of quality. Look at what is happening in Japan. We need to protect our resources. This is not a generalization. We also disagree on calling animal feed "food". I leave that argument to Michael Pollen, he has already made this point better than I ever could.

There is much research showing how energy and water intensive GMO corn is, to the point where the US changed it's position on using ethanol as a substitute for gasoline. I wasn't speaking about anything but this specific issue - not about non-irrigated crops nor about the small percentage of organic farms. Quite the opposite, I am for farms that find ways to not irrigate or use irrigation techniques that minimize wasting water. Love organic farms. The high energy and high water usage GMO corn is same corn being used as cheap animal feed and high fructose corn syrup. My original point stands, if we can't get rid of subsidies because the farm lobby is too strong, let's try to at least change the policy to promote the long term sustainability of farmland in the US.

With respect to protecting ground water, it's just not dewatering the aquifer. I was also speaking to using chemicals that persist for long periods of time. We need to find ways to protect our drinking water supplies for generations to come. I think it's time to start thinking outside the box!


Edited by llc45 (log)

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We'll have to respectfully disagree on this issue. this is a very complex,mulit-issue discussion that is outside the realm of this forum. I could provide statistics that ground water depletion is an issue in many areas of the country, not just the plain states, and not even just the US for that matter. There is a big concern that water is going to be the new oil in terms of scarcity, both in terms of depletion and degradation of quality. Look at what is happening in Japan. We need to protect our resources. This is not a generalization. We also disagree on calling animal feed "food". I leave that argument to Michael Pollen, he has already made this point better than I ever could.

With respect to protecting ground water, it's just not dewatering the aquifer. I was also speaking to using chemicals that persist for long periods of time. We need to find ways to protect our drinking water supplies for generations to come. I think it's time to start thinking outside the box!

Fair enough, thanks for the discussion. I would be interested in learning more about ground water depletion in other areas - PM me if you have any links to good articles/summaries

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For someone who wants to leave the argument to Michael Pollen you may wish to listen closer to what he is saying. The farmers are not the cause of our country being obese and unhealthy. They are in business to make a living.

Remarks that all these farms are "factory farms" is simply inflammatory.

We live right smack in the middle of the most productive corn fields in the world and the only irrigation that is being done around here is our vegetables. The busiest people around here are the tiling contractors who install the drainage to help dry out the fields and prevent flooding.

I agree that the world has a water problem, but non-irrigated corn is not the problem.

I can't think of a single farmer who would change what they farm if the farm subsidies were changed. Many of the subsidies around here include conservation payments, not just crop supplements. (the payments are close to 1% of gross revenue currently)What do you suppose these farmers would grow on their land if not corn, soy and alfalfa?

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Re subsidies in other countries: For the last 30 years or so Italy subsidized tobacco and they are in process of phasing it out. While you could debate the sanity of subsidizing tobacco in the first place, that's not my point. I live in Umbria and we are water challenged. Tobacco takes a huge amount of water, it's the only area crop that requires vast amounts of irrigation (particularly in July/Aug, the hottest, driest months). So there will be an immediate benefit to ending the tobacco growing.

However, there is considerable worry among our local farmers that they will be able to replace this cash crop. These are small farmers, it's going to kill more than a few when the subsidies end.

A complex issue indeed.

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Replanting tobacco farms has it's own problems. It could be years before you could grow most vegetables. Most food enthusiasts seem to hate corn, but they have no idea what those farms would do to stay alive with other crops.

I should state that I abhor our food system, but the logistic and economic hoops for change are great and we have no idea where we are going.

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